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Study shows forest damage persists after 1999 tornado hit Greater Cincinnati

A path winds through a forest with little undergrowth.
Theresa Culley
Twenty five years after a devastating tornado, the biological makeup of the Harris Benedict Nature Preserve has changed.

Updated 4-10-24

Twenty-five years ago today, an EF4 tornado plowed through Blue Ash and Montgomery. It destroyed more than 200 homes and killed four people. It also devastated a nature preserve, where the effects are still seen today.

University of Cincinnati Professor of Biological Sciences Theresa Culley says about a third of the Harris Benedict Nature Preserve was damaged, and invasive species, like honeysuckle, have taken advantage of the scar.

"If they're higher, like a shrub, where they're smothering everything below it, that can be a concern," she says. "But we also see Callery pears popping up there. Those are of course those white trees blooming along the roadsides. They're in the preserve as well."

Culley says UC started studying the natural restoration of the preserve with regular surveys. The study found forests will recover from a major disruption, but with fewer native species, and more non-native invaders.

RELATED: Invasive plants are on the rise in Cincinnati

"UC has owned this preserve since 1929. In the past it was really just a hands-off, 'let nature take its course,' " Culley says. "But we've realized within the last 10 or more years — since the tornado definitely — that we need to do a lot more. We need to be a lot more proactive."

A bronze plaque of several clasped hands.
Michael Miller
A marker to the victims of the 1999 storm at the Johnson Nature Preserve which adjoins the Harris Benedict Nature Preserve.

She says that is underway, but it's an ongoing battle to remove the invasive plants.

Culley says the research reveals a lot about preserve management in urban and suburban environments. The study was published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

This story was edited to add a photo of a commemorative marker.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.